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Book Review
Sunday, October 7, 2012
Elizabeth Bishop and the Horrible Insistence of Roosters

By Mark Howell

"Elizabeth Bishop: Poems, Prose and Letters"

Library of America, $40

She wasn't a "player," writes Michael Hoffman of "Elizabeth Bishop: Poems, Prose and Letters" in the London Review of Books. "She wasn't even American but three parts Canadian. She had spells in New York and Washington but didn't 'get on' in those places. She preferred the less assertive, more unregarded corners of Maine and Key West where the United States seems to fade and concede some of its identity to its neighbors ... She wrote Dylanesque ballads about innocent miscreants -- 'The Burglar of Babylon' seems to me like something that might have appeared on 'Blood on the Tracks' -- and her poems were composed in a straggling, spifflicated, slightly backward musical talk: 'Don't you call me that word, honey / Don't you call me that word. / Now you know it ain't very kind and it's also undeserved.'"

To bring Bishop back to what she really is, which is to say our most local of poets, one must steer readers toward her most representative poem, spifflicated or not.

That would be "Roosters," written in 1940, one of the greatest anti-war poems in the English language.

At first, Elizabeth Bishop's "Roosters" appears to be a simple allegory about military life invading a small town. But there is nothing simple about its 44 verses. As Key West poet James Merrill once said of Bishop's life (1911-1979), she was a "life-long impersonation of an ordinary woman."

She was a pacifist ever since World War I when, as a little girl growing up in Nova Scotia, the massive explosion of a supply ship in Halifax harbor sent her widowed mother mad -- she died believing she alone was the cause of the war.

Bishop's American grandfather, under the impression he was saving her from poverty and bare feet, yanked her out of Canada, forcing her to become a U.S. citizen and live with his upper-class family in Worcester, Mass. It would not be until she discovered the rural Key West of the 1920s that Bishop felt at home again.

She bought a house at 624 White St. in 1938 with her friend and lover Louise Crane, heiress to the Crane paper fortune. (It still stands today on White with its distinctive eyebrow roof and thin, two-story pillars).

Crane was a party girl and the reclusive Bishop often left the house for a hotel room downtown. The couple had a busy social life before the war. They enjoyed the mix that Key West offered, a cosmopolitan Caribbean society of U.S. and European whites, Bahamians and African-Americans and Cubans.

Bishop's intimates included physicist Jane Dewey, daughter of John Dewey. Within a couple of years of their arrival here, however, Crane left Bishop for Billie Holliday, the blues singer, whom she pursued in New York City. Bishop, it was said, became suicidal.

On Feb. 19, 1938, President Roosevelt visited Key West. War consciousness was creeping across America and Bishop was forced to rent her house to military personnel. She moved in with Marjory Stevens, an accountant for the Navy, on Margaret Street.

By the time of the attack on Pearl Harbor, Bishop was writing about being "rather depressed about Key West. The town is terribly overcrowded and noisy and not a bit like itself. They are talking about evacuating the civilians. I don't believe they will, but still...."

It was in the middle of all this that Bishop penned her anti-war masterpiece. Although written in short, haiku-like verses with a cohesive forward narrative, "Roosters" is also graced with the poet's signature style described by scholar Camille Roman as "subversive rhetoric and confounding strategies of complication, subterfuge and misdirection."

The complications begin with the title itself. Writing to fellow poet Marianne Moore, whose friendship with Bishop would founder over this poem, she insisted "I want to keep the title the contemptuous word 'Roosters' rather than the more classical 'the cock.'

Her contempt focused on the way newspapers would show women and children as the main casualties of enemy blitzes while never showing the result of Allied bombings. But even earlier, here in Key West, the war debate has been stirred by Hemingway's arm-candy Martha Gellhorn's observations that Churchill enjoyed war and "got Roosevelt steamed up."

War meant that a soldier must be prepared to kill a former friend if ordered to do so. "I am the enemy you killed, my friend," says Wilfred Owen in "Strange Meeting" before the poet himself was killed in 1918.

Bishop felt marginalized by this "horrible persistence of roosters," the prevailing victory paradigm with its strutting cocks, knowing she could be destroyed by it as surely as she saw it for what it was.

Unlike Marianne Moore and Edna St. Vincent Millay, who were writing patriotic poems at the time, Bishop believed that militaristic leadership involved sexual mastery over feminized masses, meaning women, children the elderly and disabled.

In the mythology of gender and war, female submission to male arrogance led, she felt, to the acquiescence by mothers and wives in support of militarism. It also forced them to be symbols of the country the soldiers were defending. In the victory ideology of the 1940s, males equaled soldiers-protectors-rescuers while females equaled the threatened nation.

In "Roosters," blame for the military siege on the domestic front is shared by the hens, the "rustling wives" who admire the cruel roosters with their feathers like "green-gold medals." References in "Roosters" to "our beds" and "our houses" and "our churches -- "This is where I live" -- turn quickly into descriptions of cock-fighting and blood. And so a love scenario turns into rooster rivalry and all hell is let loose.

Furthermore, of course, the crowing of roosters is not simply a staple of life in Key West. It is also a staple of the crucifixion. The betrayal of Christ was signaled by the cock's crow.

Writes Bishop:

St. Peter's sin

was worse than that of

Magdalen

whose sin was of the flesh alone.

Peter's sin was the worse because Magdalen's was no sin at all, simply a male take on the whore who must be destroyed so the Madonna can be saved.

Elizabeth Bishop left Key West for the job as poetry chair (now known as the poet laureate) at the Library of Congress in Washington.

Up there, in the belly of the beast, she succumbed to asthma attacks, bouts of alcoholism and auto-immune disorders.

Eventually she left the United States to live in peace in Brazil.